Jim, a department manager you depended on highly, just announced he’s changing careers to become a zoologist. You are desperate to fill his position and are doing everything you can to ensure you bring in someone equally talented (although perhaps with a slightly lower love of animals). You’ve sifted through a stack of resumes higher than the Burj Dubai. You had someone do a quick phone screen to eliminate obvious “oops” candidates. You cleared your schedule (that was a painful chore), and you are ready to being interviewing.
In walks Candidate A. You shake hands, introduce yourself (wondering silently what kind of an odd name “Candidate A” is), and you both sit down. There is a pause-which stretches slowly into a crushing silence. Candidate A is looking expectantly at you, paragraphs of well-rehearsed wisdom ready to be dropped into any question you might pose. And you realize you have absolutely nothing to say. Then you wake up and realize that this was a dream. But still, you wonder, how do you make the best use of the interview time to be sure you are ready to make a decision about your next hire?
Not All Interviews Are Created Equal
Just as all jobs are not the same, all interviews shouldn’t be the same. After all, you’re looking for different skills and problem solving abilities-even different personalities-for different roles. Therefore, not all interviews should use the exact same questions. That said, there are some general approaches that are better than others.
The key to all good interviews is to prepare. Create an interview guide for the position with some consistent questions for all candidates and some tailored to each individual.
Reread the resume. I can’t emphasize this enough. Not having read the resume does not make you appear busy and powerful. It makes you appear unprepared and uncaring. Who wants to work for a boss like that?
The Good, the Mediocre, and the Unspeakably Awful
A good interview moves you smoothly along the path of determining whether to invite the candidate to continue the interview process, and (hopefully) encourages the candidate to remain enthusiastic or remove himself from consideration (better to know now!).
A mediocre interview doesn’t do any particular harm, but doesn’t do much good either. The interviewer is generally left to make a “gut feel” decision based on how the person interviewed. This is generally a fairly poor predictor of success in the job.
Unspeakably awful interviews are just that: interviews that damage your company’s image and reputation and may even put the company at legal risk. Here are some examples:
- The interviewer talks about himself and the company for the entire interview.
- The interviewer makes the candidate sit and wait for 45 minutes-and then reads the resume for the first time in front of the candidate.
- The interviewer asks seriously stupid or illegal questions. I’m not talking generically dumb or useless questions (those are generally harmless and fall under the mediocre column); I’m talking bone-jarringly stupid questions. Like “So, what did you think of Lisa, my secretary?” or “What should I get my wife to make up for the fight we had last night?” (I wish I were making this up.)
Why waste your time asking questions that won’t help you make a decision about the candidate? If all you plan to base your decision on is whether you like the person, why not make small talk and forget interview questions? The answer is you shouldn’t make a hiring decision solely based on whether you like a person or not. You need to be sure they are a great fit for the company, the culture, the position, and the style of decision making the job entails.
One or two thoughts before I tell you which (in my opinion) are the gold-standard Best and Worst interview questions of all time.
Not all Best questions are “best” for all interviewers or all jobs. Certainly, you should use your judgment. Similarly, not all Worst questions are “bad” for all situations. Well, yes, they are always bad. So I’ve included some ways to modify them to make them better questions.
Finally, I am not a fan of predictable questions that get rehearsed answers. You would be unlikely to ask a candidate “Would you consider a paycheck a necessary consideration for employment?” because you know the answer will be ‘yes.’ So there is no need to ask-it wastes time and may diminish you in the eyes of the interviewee.
The Five Best Interview Questions
Here are the best questions I’ve found over the years, starting with my all-time favorite.
1. What is your colleagues’ biggest misconception about you? In all likelihood, the candidate has never heard this question, but it is a question he should be able to answer with a little thought. Give him a little time to think-after all, that’s part of what you’re trying to uncover: how does he react when something new is thrown his way. This question can be used at any level of the organization or in any industry. It doesn’t require special knowledge about anything except himself-and your candidate should be an expert about himself! It does require self-awareness and willingness to think a bit differently. One frequent answer is “Nothing-I’m a very open person-what you see is what you get.” I generally probe a bit with that answer, but you have to judge based on the candidate’s reaction.
2. Case study. I love using case studies for positions where the candidate will have to make decisions with less than complete information and for positions where the candidate will be required to do analytical problem solving. The idea is to ask him to think about something in a way they’ve never thought about before. As long as the answer is reasonable, I don’t worry about it being “correct.” I am interested in how they think the process through and how they deal with the ambiguity of the situation. I suggest having them think out loud so you can follow the process and answer questions they might have. (No, they cannot use the computer, their iPhone, or anything else. They just have to think the problem through.) Some examples of case studies might include: How many pianos are there in New York City? How many eggs does the local coffee shop use in a day?
3. Please tell me about a time when you changed someone’s mind. What was the situation? What did you do? What happened? This particular behavioral-based interview question is one of my favorites. As the ability to work in teams becomes ever more important in the workforce, influencing people and working in a collaborative manner are critical skills.
4. Please tell me about a time when you changed your own mind. What was the situation? What did you do? What happened? Closely related to the previous inquiry, this question is designed to highlight whether the candidate is open to new ideas and new ways of thinking. Depending on the position I’m interviewing for or the answer I hear, I may ask for a second example just to be sure that she has demonstrated real adaptive ability as opposed to changing her mind one time in a moment of weakness.
5. If you were going to convince a friend or colleague to apply for this position, what might you tell them? Assuming you’ve done the prescreening well, you can be fairly certain that the candidate has the skills for the position. Hopefully, you’ve also figured out that she has a natural fit, the instinctive modus operandi, to be a good fit for the job and for working with the hiring manager. Now you need to know if she has desire to bring her passion for the position and the company to work every day. This question will help you understand how much research she has done on the company as well as give you some insight as to the attitude and zeal she’ll bring to your department.
The Five All Time Worst Interview Questions
Unfortunately, there are all too many bad interview questions that get asked all too frequently. Here’s my list of questions that should be retired to their own special Hall of Shame.
1. Tell me about yourself. Here’s how any candidate will interpret this question: “I didn’t have time to read your resume or if I did it wasn’t interesting enough to remember so why don’t you fill me in so I have a clue what we’re talking about.” It’s also so vague, it leaves many candidates wondering if you’re the type of manager who expects people to read your mind. If you must ask some form of this, at least make the effort to look professional by saying something like, “I’ve had the opportunity to review your resume, but I often find it helpful to hear people explain their own background. Why don’t you give me a short description of your career.”
2. Where do you see yourself in five years? Seriously? Most of us aren’t even sure where we’ll be in a month. Also, it’s an expected question. Therefore (again) the answer is likely to be rehearsed, polished, and practically meaningless.
3. Tell me your strengths and weaknesses. Easily my least favorite question of all. First of all, everyone expects this question. If the candidate can’t answer this smoothly, they struggle with other questions so you can’t really use this to weed people out. Everyone knows to make the strength something generic enough not to be threatening, and to make the weakness something you’ve worked hard to overcome (and that wouldn’t really matter if you still suffer from-like working too hard). If you ask this question, you deserve the hogwash you’re about to be fed.
4. Do you like working in a team environment? “Nope. Pretty much hate people. Hoping for a job in which I can stare at my computer all day long and growl at anyone who asks for help or information. I figure if I do this well enough, I’ll become the next Dilbert character.” If you want to know how they will work in a team, then that’s what you need to ask. For example, “Can you tell me about a time when you worked as part of a team to solve a big problem?” or “What role do you find yourself filling in a team setting? Is this a role you’re comfortable in? Can you give me an example of a time when you worked in a team in this kind of role?”
5. Do you work well under pressure? What do you expect someone to say? “Er, not really.”? “Can I call use a lifeline?” “No, but I bring my mom to work every day and she’s great with pressure.” There is only one possible answer to this question, so why bother asking? The days of the high pressure interviews are gone with other unfortunate trends of the 1980s, so if you want to know how the person will respond to a high pressure situation, ask for an example of when they worked under pressure in the past. Of try something like, “Here at XYZ Diamond Cutters, we understand that cutting extremely large gemstones is an art that involves a lot of stress. What do you do to balance your environment so the stress does not become overwhelming?”
Remember that interviews aren’t conducted on either side of a one-way mirror. Just as you are evaluating the candidate, so the candidate is evaluating you. You are in fact marketing your company. You will interview far more people than you will ever hire. Be sure you leave those who are not offered a position feeling great about you and your company. You never know…